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Of Orcs: Part 2 – A Day in the Life

by on December 21, 2018

** Guest Writer Vardaen brings us another fantastic piece of lore investigation, shedding light on an important element of the card game and the legendarium**

‘I’d like to try somewhere where there’s none of ’em. But the war’s on now, and when that’s over things may be easier.’

‘It’s going well, they say.’

‘They would.’ grunted Gorbag. ‘We’ll see. But anyway, if it does go well, there should be a lot more room. What d’you say? – if we get a chance, you and me’ll slip off and set up somewhere on our own with a few trusty lads, somewhere where there’s good loot nice and handy, and no big bosses.’

‘Ah!’ said Shagrat. ‘Like old times.’

‘Yes,’ said Gorbag. ‘But don’t count on it. I’m not easy in my mind. As I said, the Big Bosses, ay,’ his voice sank almost to a whisper, ‘ay, even the Biggest, can make mistakes. Something nearly slipped you say. I say, something has slipped. And we’ve got to look out. Always the poor Uruks to put slips right, and small thanks. But don’t forget: the enemies don’t love us any more than they love Him, and if they get topsides on Him, we’re done too. But see here: when were you ordered out?’ — The Two Towers, LoTR Book 4, Ch 10, The Choices of Master Samwise

Shagrat and Gorbag – Alan Lee

Note: You can Find “Of Orcs: Part 1 – Origins” on Master of Lore’s page here:

Of Orcs: Part 2 – A Day in the Life

Understanding a bit of where orcs come from we do not however understand how they live. We only ever interact with them through Tolkien’s writing during war, as soldiers and enemies. The same is true for our interaction with them in the card game. We have dozens of orcish foes ranging in titles from things like Horse Thieves, Drummer, Horn Blower, Raiders, Arbalesters, Rabble, Scramblers, Ravager, Skirmisher, Snaga, Hunter, War Party, Grunts, Chieftain, and on and on and on. These do lead us to wonder about orc society, and what do they do when they aren’t at war with the Free People? Are there orcish marching bands that our Dummer and Horn Blower are part of? Do they hold elections for their Chieftains? What do they do with those horses they capture? It seems unlikely that if we were able to dig deeper into their society that we would find much more than a might makes right society always on the brink of war with one another if no common foe presented itself.

Orc Craft

We find that they are skilled in many crafts and talents that require focused knowledge to master. Most of these skills are focused around warfare, such as the crafting of weapons and armor which they always have in abundance and of passing quality. They may make no beautiful thing, but they can craft clever and cruel things, and they can tunnel and mine nearly as good at the dwarves.

“Now goblins are cruel, wicked, and bad-hearted. They make no beautiful things, but they make many clever ones. They can tunnel and mine as well as any but the most skilled dwarves, when they take the trouble, though they are usually untidy and dirty. Hammers, axes, swords, daggers, pickaxes, tongs, and also instruments of torture, they make very well, or get other people to make to their design, prisoners and slaves that have to work till they die for want of air and light. It is not unlikely that they invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them, and also not working with their own hands more than they could help; but in those days and those wild parts they had not advanced (as it is called) so far.“ – The Hobbit, Chapter IV, Over Hill and Under Hill

The ability to craft tools for war comes as no surprise, for they are creatures bred for war. Yet it would seem they have craft in healing as well; in their own way. During the capture of Merry and Pippen we see them put to use their orc-draughts. This substance grants strength and endurance, at least for a short while.

“Uglúk thrust a flask between his teeth and poured some burning liquid down his throat: he felt a hot fierce glow flow through him. The pain in his legs and ankles vanished. He could stand.” – The Two Towers, LoTR Book 3, Ch 3, The Uruk-Hai

“The warmth of the orc-draught had gone. Pippin felt cold and sick again. Suddenly he fell face downward on the turf.” – The Two Towers, LoTR Book 3, Ch 3, The Uruk-Hai

This orc-draught, much like the orcs are twisted versions of elves, is a twisted version of the elven cordial Miruvor (translated from Qenya as ‘nectar, drink of the Valar’)1. Both have similar abilities and perhaps similar sources.

“’Give them this,’ said Gandalf, searching in his pack and drawing out a leathern flask. ‘Just a mouthful each ‘ for all of us. It is very precious. It is miruvor, the cordial of Imladris. Elrond gave it to me at our parting. Pass it round!’

As soon as Frodo had swallowed a little of the warm and fragrant liquor he felt a new strength of heart, and the heavy drowsiness left his limbs. The others also revived and found fresh hope and vigour.” – The Ring Goes South, pg. 378-379, The Fellowship of the Ring

For Miruvor was said to be the drink of the Valar, and poured at their festivals. Perhaps Melkor, in all his malice, took the secrets of this drink and twisted it and perverted it and gave its recipe to his orcs who, over the long ages, passed it down generation to generation.

On an interesting aside, by the end of the Lord of the Rings Merry & Pippen have partaken in Miruvor, Orc-draught, and Ent Draught, the only characters to do so.

Of course the leech-craft of the orcs is put to fouler purposes as well, namely poison. We see them put this craft to use on many occasions. Including the slaying of Isuldur at the Gladden Fields, and once again when Aragorn tends to Samwise outside of Lothlórien.

“They loosed their poisoned arrows at it, and fled.” – Unfinished Tales, Part 3, Ch 1, The Disaster of the Gladden Fields

“Aragorn tended Sam and Frodo. Sam’s wound was not deep, but it looked ugly, and Aragorn’s face was grave as he examined it….

‘Good luck, Sam!’ he said…. ‘The cut is not poisoned, as the wounds of orc-blades too often are. It should heal well….’ “- The Fellowship of the Ring, LoTR Book 2, Ch 6, Lothlórien

We do not see any poison cards associated with the orcs in the card game however, only those when dealing with the spiders and attercops in Mirkwood. Perhaps the poison craft we see among the orcs is the ability to harvest venom from such creatures. We do know they will eat most anything.

Orcish Culinary Delights

Besides orc-draught and poison the orcs have a focus on food and drink. Tolkien tells us they are always hungry and that they will eat just about anything, including other orcs (maybe)! First they have to get their hands on things, and that includes raiding and pillaging, which is another talent they excel at. We hear of them raiding horses in Rohan, preferring the black horses over the rest. Some of them are taken to Mordor for ill purposes, but of course others are eaten right away.

“For goblins eat horses and ponies and donkeys (and other much more dreadful things), and they are always hungry.” – The Hobbit

It’s not all horses and ponies however, we learn that they have bread as well, as Pippen is given some to eat, along with some stride of dried flesh. Which suggests they have orcish cooks, and bakers.

“He ate the stale grey bread hungrily, but not the meat. He was famished but not yet so famished as to eat flesh flung to him by an Orc, the flesh of he dared not guess what creature.” – The Two Towers

Orc will apparently eat anything. Ugluk boasts that the White Hand gives them man’s-flesh to eat. Grishnakh however insults them suggesting that really they eat orc-flesh; which could actually be true. When Sam is listening in on Shagrat in Cirith Ungol we hear Shagrat scold Gorbag and suggest a punishment for Gorbag is to be ‘for the pot’ if he doesn’t watch himself. Perhaps when times are tight they resort to cannibalism. It’s doubtful they do much farming after all in Mordor or in the depths of the Misty Mountains.

COTR Style Candy Rustlers?

Orc Speech

A culture is defined by its language in many ways, and the Professor knew this better than most. So when looking at orc culture we must look at orc language. All we need to know can be found in Appendix F of the Lord of the Rings.

“The Orcs were first bred by the Dark Power of the North in the Elder Days. It is said that they had no language of their own, but took what they could of other tongues and perverted it to their own liking; yet they made only brutal jargons, scarcely sufficient even for their own needs, unless it were for curses and abuse. And these creatures, being filled with malice, hating even their own kind, quickly developed as many barbarous dialects as there were groups or settlements of their race, so that their Orkish speech was of little use to them in intercourse between different tribes.

“So it was that in the Third Age Orcs used for communication between breed and breed the Westron tongue; and many indeed of the older tribes, such as those that still lingered in the North and in the Misty Mountains, had long used the Westron as their native language, though in such a fashion as to make it hardly less unlovely than Orkish.” – The Return of the King, LoTR Appendix F, The Languages and Peoples of the Third Age: Of Other Races 

The Black Speech of Mordor was not commonly used by the Orcs any more than other languages were. First crafted by Sauron in the Dark Years, it does appear on the ring script, and is used by the Nazgul and his Captains, but during the time of his first overthrow it fell into great disuse and by the time of the War of the Ring few used it even among his own forces.


Language leads to knowledge, and the passing of it from generation to generation. Clearly the orcs were an oral culture and one indication of this is the use of song! We see a great deal of terrible orc and goblin singing in the Hobbit but (un)fortunately no place else. Perhaps this is their greatest crime of all!

Clap! Snap! the black crack!

Grip, grab! Pinch, nab!

And down down to Goblin-town

You go, my lad!

Clash, crash! Crush, smash!

Hammer and tongs! Knocker and gongs! Pound, pound, far underground!

Ho, ho! my lad!

Swish, smack! Whip crack!

Batter and beat! Yammer and bleat! Work, work! Nor dare to shirk,

While Goblins quaff, and Goblins laugh, Round and round far underground

Below, my lad!

Orc Bard from a Middle-earth ‘inspired’ game.

Longevity and Afterlife

One of the most difficult and unexplained aspects of orc life is the burning question of ‘How long do orcs live?”. Tolkien never gives us a clear cut answer to this nor to the question of what happens to orcs after they die? If they are twisted and corrupted elves does their Fëa (spirit) return to the halls of Mandos on death like the elves?

“For the Elves die not till the world dies, unless they are slain or waste in grief…; neither does age subdue their strength, unless one grow weary of ten thousand centuries; and dying they are gathered to the halls of Mandos in Valinor, whence they may in time return. “ – The Silmarillion, Quenta Silmarillion, Ch 1, Of The Beginning of Days

It is said that men also go to the halls of Mandos in Valinor but their place is set apart from elves. Dwarves too are gathered by Aulë the Maker and they are set apart as well until the end. We see nothing about the orcs, and can only speculate where their soul, if one still remains, might go after death. It shall have to simply remain a mystery.

So too is a mystery on the longevity of orcs, we can gather some information on the longevity of orcs based on the texts, but like many things the Professor did not explain everything to us. Orcs are far from invulnerable, and live a life of danger, war, and turmoil. They are subject to disease and famine, and as we learned need to eat and drink to survive. It stands to reason that most orcs live a rather short and bloody life. The oldest orc we are given information on is Bolg, the son of Azog who ruled Moria in the Third Age. Bolg was at least 142 years old, a grand old age for any orc. Still this is far from the immortal lifespan of an elf. One might speculate that since all things in Middle-earth that become corrupted tend to fade over time that so too has the life span of the original Avari that had been turned into orcs by Morgoth. The first kings of Numenor live lifespans of around 450 years, but by the time of the Drowning their greed and corruption has reduced that life to a mere 150 years. Such a failing can easily be attributed to orcs corruption and breeding with ‘lesser men’. Still we do see some like Azog and Bolg and Ufthak that live longer lives than some other orcs. We encounter Chieftain Ufthak in his prime during our imprisonment in Dol Guldur leading the orcs against us. It’s not until the War of the Ring when Sam overhears Shagrat and Gorbag speaking do we find out Ufthak’s ultimate fate.

“D’you remember old Ufthak? We lost him for days. Then we found him in a corner; hanging up he was, but he was wide awake and glaring. How we laughed! She’d forgotten him, maybe, but we didn’t touch him-no good interfering with Her.” — The Two Towers, LoTR Book 4, Ch 10, The Choices of Master Samwise

Their Ultimate Fate

What becomes of the orcs after the fall of Sauron? Does the earth swallow them up like we see at the end of the Peter Jackson films? Almost, they fled and scattered, the power that drove them and protected them (like in the case of Olog-hai) was broken and so too were they.

”…behold! their enemies were flying and the power of Mordor was scattering like dust in the wind. As when death smites the swollen brooding thing that inhabits their crawling hill and holds them all in sway, ants will wander witless and purposeless and then feebly die, so the creatures of Sauron, orc or troll or beast spell-enslaved, ran hither and thither mindless; and some slew themselves, or cast themselves in pits, or fled wailing back to hide in holes and dark lightless places far from hope.” — The Return of the King, LoTR Book 6, Ch 4, The Field of Cormallen

In Tolkien’s very brief writing about the Forth Age found in “The Peoples of Middle-earth” he speaks of a time 100 years after the passing of Aragorn where young men play at ‘Orc’s work’ for they have forgotten what they really were and what evil they wrought and of being only things now of fairy tales. So it would seem that without the ‘Big Bosses’ the orcs quickly fade and vanish from Middle-earth, just like their elven counter parts have done.

O! Wanderers in the shadowed land
despair not! For though dark they stand,
all woods there be must end at last,
and see the open sun go past:
the setting sun, the rising sun,
the day’s end, or the day begun.
For east or west all woods must fail…

–          Frodo Bagins, The Fellowship of the Ring, LoTR Book 1, Ch 6, The Old Forest

Shagrat and Grbag – John Howe

1: “Miruvor QL miruvore ‘nectar, drink of the Valar’ (seep. 179), with miru ‘wine’; GL mirofor (or gurmir) ‘drink of the Gods’, mir, miros ‘wine’.” – Part VI, The Theft of Melko and the Darkening of Valinor, Histories of Middle-earth Vol. 1

From → Lore

One Comment
  1. Dale J Stephenson permalink

    The Allen Lee illustration is not of Gorbag and Shagrat, but of the Uruk and tracker that quarreled within earshot of Sam and Frodo. In my copy of LOTR illustrated by Alan Lee, it is found between pages 960 and 961, where that incident occurred. The bottom illustration attributed to John Howe is found between 768 and 769 and is of Shagrat and Gorbag.

    I wonder what the time was that both Shagrat and Gorbag can remember, when there were no big bosses. Do orcs, like elves, not age?

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